Still Trying to Figure out Life

Hello again! If you happened to read the previous post in this blog, I would like to let you know that I’ve been feeling a lot better this past month! Obviously the concept of someone wanting to commit suicide still kind of freaks me out, but I feel better having been able to express these feelings and being reassured that it’s normal to feel this way.

As I believe I mentioned in the last post, this young man’s death has led me to question my own life and career choices. Because clearly, I haven’t been doing enough of that. I still question if a symphony career is right for me or realistic for me. I feel bad that I have no new material for this blog haha.

I do have a different teacher this year as my previous teacher retired. It’s great to get many different perspectives at this crucial point in my life. One of the things he mentioned is that I shouldn’t cross a symphony player off my list after having only done one audition. I guess I just want to have options and not be so insistent on getting into a symphony that I don’t pursue other options as well. He’s also made the point not to get too carried away with pursuing non-music career options as well. When you graduate master’s, you’re at the height of your playing and it can be hard to maintain a high level of playing if you immediately pursue another degree or career path. I do agree to an extent, however bills do need to be paid and if a non-music job on the side is what’s going facilitate, then you do what you have to do.

I guess my main barrier to starting my career is confidence. Sometimes you have to take risks. Sometimes you have to take auditions you don’t think you have a chance of winning. I guess I grew up always feeling like I was inadequate or not “good enough” for my age. Now that I am in master’s and have seen many undergrads in various levels, I realize now that I have never been “behind”. The first years at my school now are playing the same type of rep that I played in first year. Yes, I’ve known high school students who could play high level rep like Der Schwanendreher or the Brahms sonatas, but that’s not typical and it’s okay. I used to think I had no chance of succeeding because I wasn’t playing that kind of rep in high school, but that’s not how it works.

The other thing is accepting the fact that not winning school competitions is also okay. Sometimes I think that if I can’t get selected to the final round to a competition at some small school in the prairies, how would I get selected to the final round of a symphony audition? My teacher again mentioned that getting selected for a competition and getting selected for a symphony position are two different skill sets. Many professional players in a symphony have never won a concerto competition but clearly won their audition. In a competition, you have to have the full package, so to speak. Not only do all the notes have to be in place, the musicality has to be in place, as well as your overall stage presence. You’re basically selling your artistic interpretation. However, in an orchestral audition, they’re not looking for artistic interpretations or different tone colours. They want someone who can play what’s on the page and blend in with a section. It’s hard to be good at both.

I think back to the time I was in high school and felt like I needed to “prove” to people that I was just as good as the violinists and cellists. Growing up in a small city in the prairies, I had no perspective really of what was considered an “average” level for a violinist, violist, or cellist. I always assumed I was behind. Typically, the people who were above average for their age were the ones that won all the competitions and were encouraged to pursue music. The people like me who were more at an “average” level were kind of forgotten about although we were just as capable to pursue music. My teacher had always specifically said to me that I couldn’t play the Brahms or Clarke sonatas, whereas a lot of the high level violinists and cellists my age were playing pieces equivalent to that level. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just the way it was.

When I was going into grade 12, I had this idea that I needed to learn a big piece to “impress” people or appear “less bad”. I decided I was going to learn the first movement of the Bartok concerto which is just ridiculous. That’s a piece that people my age now would learn, or at least later in undergrad. I guess my teacher was at a point where he knew I was going to go away anyway so there was no point in stopping me if I had it in my head that I was going to play the first movement of the Bartok. Looking back, I had the musicality to play the piece, but not the technique. I didn’t play it terribly, but I think a lot of people could tell that the piece was way beyond my level when I played it. In some ways it was good for me to have a challenge piece like that as it did push me technically. However, I could think of at least 10 other challenge pieces that would have been challenging but more realistic at that age. Again, I was seeking the validation from people that I was worthy of studying music. There’s no shame in playing Stamitz or Hoffmeister for undergrad auditions.

Anyway, hopefully I figure out my life soon. Just kidding. I still got time for that.

Death of a Mutual Friend

*Warning* This blog post is much more intense and emotional than what I typically write and could potentially be triggering. Please use your discretion.

I’m sorry to have such a depressing topic for this blog post, but it’s something that has been on my mind for the past month and I felt I needed to acknowledge it.

About a month ago, a violist from my current city had committed suicide. I actually had never met him, but with the Canadian viola world (and musical community in general) being so small, it definitely affected me greatly. We had so much in common too, he did his undergrad at the school that I am currently attending for master’s and we attended some of the same summer programs. It’s kind of crazy that we never actually met or interacted, but had so much in common that we basically knew each other.

I remember the day it happened. I was on my laptop, checking Facebook, as one does, and I went into the kitchen to grab a snack, make supper, or something. I refresh Facebook and my news feed is full of posts pertaining to this young man’s death earlier that day. It was so surreal and pretty much came out of nowhere. The more posts I saw, the more it started to hit me, especially ones from people who are close friends of mine. Seeing how his death affected those who were close to me started to have a profound affect on myself too. Based on what I had read, no one would have ever guessed that this young man was suicidal. People had talked to him weeks or days before and he seemed very upbeat and had long term plans.

The part that made it difficult for me is that people rarely acknowledged or discussed his death in conversation. I received several emails from professors, but it’s not the same as talking about it in real life. It almost seemed like people wanted to pretend it didn’t happen. I remember when I was in high school, there were two students who died in a fire (that I had never met) and I remember the next day at school, pretty much every single teacher I had that day took 15-20 minutes (or more) to talk to us about it. I appreciated that as it reassured me that feeling upset was totally normal and that the teachers and counselors were available for anyone who wanted to talk. I would have appreciated if even one of my profs had done that this time around, even more so than when I was in high school. Our orchestra concert was coming up and I get that the director wanted to put the pedal to the medal to get our music ready, but it still seemed a bit insensitive to not acknowledge that some students may not have been in a mental state to attend that rehearsal (yet did anyway as they felt obligated to).

It was a combination of not feeling like I could talk about it with anyone, starting to feel the stress of the school year, and worrying about my own career that kind of allowed these feelings to “snowball” in my mind. The weekend following the death, I started to have a lot of “existential” thoughts about the meaning of life and death. It was the first time I really thought about my own eventual death and if I would accomplish enough to have a satisfying life. I began to think, will I ever get married (or be in any kind of long term relationship for that matter)? Will I ever have a career? Will I get to see the world and experience things I’ve wanted to experience? The mere thought about being dead and experiencing nothing also freaks me out. Even if I think about the time before I was born and all the stuff that occurred and just merely wasn’t aware of, I get freaked out. What would it be like to be here, and then all of a sudden it all disappears? Why would someone want this for themselves?

I remember it was a Sunday evening. My school has chamber music masterclasses every Monday morning for all the students in a chamber group and my group was scheduled to play the next morning. I had gone to bed at a reasonable time, but literally could not fall asleep. I felt like my throat was closing up and I was sweating. Every time I would kind of fall asleep, I would jolt awake and not be able to stop thinking about either the young man or some thought about death. By the time I fell asleep, I had to wake up to get ready to go to school. If I wasn’t performing in the masterclass, I would have stayed at home, but I pulled myself together to get to school because I didn’t want to let my quartet down. Immediately after the masterclass was over, however, I went back home and slept.

At the time, I didn’t think much of the insomnia incident, until it happened again the following weekend. I didn’t originally attribute it to the thoughts of the death of the young man, I thought it was due to drinking too much caffeine in the day, being on the computer too late at night, or sleeping in too late in the morning.

This past Monday (Oct. 16) was when it became absolutely unbearable and I finally acknowledged it to myself that the death of this young man was having a negative toll on my life and I really needed to get help and/or talk to someone. During the day, I was thinking dark, disturbing thoughts about death and could not seem to get it out of my mind no matter what I did. Thankfully, no suicidal thoughts. When I went to sleep that night, it was the same thing. It was almost like I was scared I was going to die during my sleep or something. I had trouble breathing again. At around 1:30, I left my room and went to go sit on the couch. I was trying to catch my breath and relax a bit. I debated phoning my parents, even though it was super late, I have the type of relationship with them that they’d understand, but I decided against it. I told myself that the next day at school, I needed to talk to someone as soon as possible. I went back to sleep and was able to sleep a few hours.

The next day at school I chose to talk to my teacher. It was kind of impulsive. I knew he had a half hour break between a student and the orchestral excerpts class, so I went for it. I felt kind of bad storming into his studio and talking about such a heavy topic, but it had been weighing on me for so long, I needed to verbalize it and acknowledge it to someone. I didn’t go into insane detail about my insomnia episodes and morbid thoughts, but I did mention there were 3 nights that I couldn’t sleep. He was very understanding and said that how I felt was completely normal, which is exactly what I needed. He gave me the information for the counselling service for students on campus, which I may eventually look into, although I want to talk to people I know first. He also emphasized that it was completely normal to feel this way even though I had never met this young man. Even though it was a relatively brief conversation, it made a world of a difference to me for having told one person.

When I got home that day, I phoned my parents and talked to them and once again, they were very understanding and once again assured me that the way I felt was normal. They also recommended looking into services on campus but also named some other family members or friends that I could talk to as well.

And now, I already feel a thousand times better. I still feel like I need to talk about it more, but the way I feel is night and day from Monday. It’s an important lesson to all of us to seek help if you need it. There is no need to feel ashamed of feeling the way you feel about anything in life.